Spaces for Learning and Fun
Perspectives On Line: The Magazine of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

NC State University

Spring 2003 Home Features On the Map Up on the Roof Spaces for Learning and Fun On the Right Track
Clean Hands, Safer ProduceCollege Profile
Noteworthy News Alumni Giving Items of Interest From the Dean College of Agriculture & Life Sciences  




(Above) Dr. Karen DeBord (center), Nilda Cosco (left) and Robin Moore combined skills to create outdoor environments where children can play and learn, such as the "bird blind" (top photo). (Below) DeBord and a group of children tend to seedlings in a planter built by teachers and parents at a childcare center.  (Photos by Sheri D. Thomas)










































































"Teachers need to consider
how outdoor play can become
more intentional than just free
running around."

— Karen DeBord







Using the outdoors as an extension of the classroom, DeBord incourages Calvin Lee to enjoy the plants. (Photo by Sheri D. Thomas)





















Spaces for Learning and Fun: A collaborative effort seeks to improve outdoor play areas for young children. --- By Natalie Hampton
(Photo by Sheri D. Thomas)

ornate letter The state’s top childcare centers strive to provide a strong learning environment for young children, both indoors and outdoors. But in recent years, regulations and funding obstacles have turned many centers’ playgrounds into uninviting, sterile areas that don’t encourage the level of learning and imaginative play that children deserve.

A group of professionals from university extension and private practice have collaborated to discover what it takes to create exemplary outdoor learning spaces for young children. Their efforts will lead to the development of an evaluation instrument that childcare centers and schools can use to improve their outdoor spaces.

Among those involved in the project are Dr. Karen DeBord in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS), College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State; Robin Moore and Nilda Cosco of the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI), N.C. State’s College of Design; Dr. Linda Hestnes of the School of Human Environmental Sciences, University of North Carolina at Greensboro; and Janet McGinnis of Health Directions in Chapel Hill.

The partners each bring a particular perspective to outdoor learning. DeBord, a child development specialist, and Hestnes of UNC-G bring knowledge of young children and how they learn. Moore, professor of landscape architecture and adjunct professor in FCS, and Cosco are experts in the design of environments that support healthy child development. McGinnis addresses issues of health and safety.

The effort grew out of a mounting concern that the emphasis on playground regulation had literally sapped the life from many play areas where young children spend their days. Playgrounds were stripped of most equipment, and new plastic structures became the centerpieces of outdoor play areas, DeBord said.

“For public parks, this equipment works fine,” Moore said. “At a childcare center, the kids are there eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week. They need an environment that engages their attention and interest and stimulates their curiosity every day. Play equipment on its own can’t do that.”

But add a “bird blind,” where children can hide and observe birds attracted by feeders or add a vegetable garden with colorful and interesting plants, and real learning begins. Other outdoor learning options include a butterfly or bog garden, where children are free to play and interact with the environment.

These are examples of outdoor enhancements that NLI helped craft for corporate childcare centers at SAS Institute and GlaxoSmithKline in the Research Triangle Park. Both programs are run by Bright Horizons, one of the most progressive companies in corporate childcare, Moore said.

Isabelle Bowling (left) and Kaylee Hays tend to their plants in a Bright Horizons outdoor activity area. (Photo by Sheri D. Thomas)

While the outdoor learning spaces created for these centers provide innovative learning opportunities for young children, Moore and DeBord realize that such innovation comes with a price. In a recent statewide survey conducted by NLI, childcare providers said money and training were the most critical needs for any improvements to their outdoor spaces, Moore said.

With increased emphasis on licensing and accreditation of childcare centers, there is much information available on how to improve indoor spaces, but not much on outdoor spaces, DeBord said.

“We wanted to be able to look at outdoor children’s environments associated with daycare programs, compare learning environments and say which one is of higher quality. The research literature does not address much about outdoors other than safety, and we wanted to go beyond safety and talk about quality,” DeBord added.

“There’s no assessment tool out there anywhere in the country that we’re aware of that units such as the state Division of Child Development can use to make an objective assessment of the quality of outdoor environments,” Moore said.

In addition to creating an assessment tool for outdoor environments, the researchers want to provide guidance on how centers can move in new directions with their outdoor space. With a scale such as this, childcare teachers can see the possibilities for their outdoor areas and become motivated to try something new.

The collaborators have developed five dimensions of good outdoor environments for children. First, the physical environment should be well oriented to the sun and include some sheltered space for rainy days. Indoor and outdoor uses should be integrated so that one flows into the other.

Traffic patterns – entrances to the spaces and between play areas — should be friendly, welcoming and buffered from automobile traffic. Erosion and drainage should be addressed.

The research group wanted teachers to better understand the potential for outdoor environments, so possibilities for renovation should be considered. Can the play areas be changed? Is there a balance between manufactured play items and natural items, such as landscape plants?

Interaction is another dimension of outdoor environments. The play area should encourage interaction between children, children and adults, and children and their environments.

Play and learning settings, a third dimension, should provide space for a diverse range of activities: a stage for performing, a story-telling area, spaces for sand and water play, gardens or a puppet theater. “Loose parts,” which range from manufactured items like shovels and blocks to natural items like pine-cones and shells for children to move, count, order and take apart, also are important for any play area, DeBord said.

Said Moore, “The more loose parts, the more children can engage in social and imaginative activity and dramatic play.”

The collaborators on this project realize that a playground is more than just equipment and play areas. Another dimension of the scale deals with how teachers and care-givers are involved with the learning that takes place outdoors, just as they are with indoor learning.

The play and learning program, the fifth and final dimension, should incorporate the outdoors as an extension of the classroom.

“Teachers need to integrate the learning activities between the outdoors and the indoors and consider how outdoor play can become more intentional than just free running around. Anything you can do inside you should be able to do outside, including reading, art, music, math, language arts, tape recorders and science, of course,” DeBord said.

Added Moore, “Diverse outdoor environments are more interesting to teachers as well. The environment provides a vehicle for good, positive interaction between teachers and children.”

The outdoor environment should be a place where children are encouraged to touch, handle and even pick the plants. The teacher or caregiver should balance caring for the outdoor environment with creating an environment that is child-friendly, DeBord said.

“For example, if children are looking for worms and bugs, the teacher could give them some collecting trays and some shovels to move that along a little further,” she said. “Or if they are watching birds and wondering about them, the teacher can find ways to extend their curiosity into learning. The teacher might add binoculars or bird books to the environment.”

In addition to looking at outdoor environments in North Carolina, the team hopes the assessment tool they create will be used nationally and internationally. A graduate student in Iowa is collecting data with the instrument to test it in a colder climate. DeBord plans to travel to Sweden in the fall to test the scale with climates and programs there.

The researchers are now working to validate the effectiveness of the assessment tool. Once that is complete, DeBord said, they will provide training for Extension professionals and others.

N.C. State University will host the Early Childhood Outdoor Design Institute June 5-7. Organizers hope to attract childcare providers, parks and recreation professionals, architects and landscape architects. For more information on the institute, visit the Web site


Previous PageTop of Page Next Page